As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine—as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Russia admits losses in Makiivka attack, retaliates by striking empty Ukrainian ice rink
Ukraine’s first days of 2023 saw Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian precision attacks on Russian positions.
Just prior to the new year, Russian forces launched sixty-nine cruise missiles and twenty-three drones, of which Ukrainian air defenses reportedly shot down fifty-four missiles and at least eleven drones. The attacks primarily struck infrastructure facilities in Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, causing widespread disruptions to energy, heating, and water supplies. Russian forces also hit targets across Ukraine, including Sumy, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Poltava, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia. The Ukrainian Air Force Command claimed that Russian forces launched sixteen Shahed-131 and -136 drones on the night of December 29.
On New Year’s Eve, Ukraine’s army attacked Russian army headquarters in the occupied village of Makiivka, Donetsk. In a rare admission of casualties, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed eighty-nine soldiers were killed in the strike. Ukrainian armed forces, in contrast, reported 400 killed and 300 wounded. Ukrainian forces also shared a graphic video showing the aftermath of the shelling. On the evening of January 1, pro-Russia military blogger Vladimir Romanov reported that Ukraine had struck nineteen vocational schools, which commanders had “compactly populated” with recruits mobilized from the Saratov region. Romanov claimed 200 soldiers died in the attacks. On January 4, the Russian defense ministry stated, “It is already obvious that the main reason for what happened was the inclusion and massive use, contrary to the ban, by personnel of mobile phones in the reach of enemy weapons.” British intelligence assessed that someone placed ammunition inside the building, the detonation of which led to destruction and deaths.
In the Donetsk region, the Russian military is fighting for the ground between Bakhmut and Soledar, with Russian forces positioned to possibly encircle Soledar. A Wagner Group unit remains heavily active in the fighting across the zone around the Bakhmut frontline. To the northeast of the city, their forces advanced along the Svitlodarsk-Sloviansk highway and reached the southern outskirts of Pidhorodne. Ukrainian officers and British military intelligence stated that Russia is no longer hitting Bakhmut with the same ferocity as it had during the previous month, instead repositioning armored vehicles and artillery fire toward the nearby town of Soledar. Meanwhile in Bakhmut, Russian sources claim that units including Wagner detachments are advancing simultaneously in several directions.
To curb the backlash after Ukraine’s strike on Makiivka, Russia claimed it had killed “many” soldiers and foreign mercenaries “from Ukraine and NATO” in a January 3 strike on an ice rink in Druzhkivka, Donetsk. A French journalist witnessed the attack during a live report. The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine later stated the facility “was completely empty.”
On January 2, the village of Vyazovoe in the Belgorod region of Russia came under fire. On January 4, the Ukrainian army targeted the military commandant’s building in Vasylivka, Zaporizhzhia, used by the Russian armed forces to house personnel. Five people were killed and fifteen injured, according to Yevgeny Balitsky, acting governor of the occupied territory.
Against this background, Russia is trying to fill the losses in its arsenal. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia can produce about thirty Kh-101 cruise missiles and about twenty Kalibr missiles per month. Russian stockpiles of these missiles are extremely depleted, so in subsequent strikes, the Russian military may try to combine attacks using precision cruise missiles, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles against ground targets, Iranian kamikaze drones, and Soviet Kh-22 missiles. According to some estimates, Russian forces have about 160 Kh-22 missiles, but their range is only 350 kilometers. Russia has already used about 660 of the 1,750 Shahed drones ordered from Iran, but Iran is expected to send another batch of 250 to 300 units, along with improved drones and ballistic missiles.
According to Ukrainian military intelligence, six sabotage actions against Russian railways caused logistical problems in the first four days of 2023. In 2022, there were about forty railway sabotage actions reported in Russia.
On January 4, a fire was reported in a tent camp for mobilized units in the Siberian region of Tomsk. The Russian army uses tents to accommodate mobilized soldiers in an area of Siberia where, at this time of year, the temperature is between -10 and -20 degrees Celsius. Many units use heaters that can be dangerous and unstable in such conditions.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Russian military bloggers criticize Putin’s Orthodox Christmas ceasefire announcement
On January 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a thirty-six-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to observe Orthodox Christmas. Kyiv rejected Putin’s proposal, stating that Moscow’s aim was to stop Ukrainian advances in the Donbas. Putin’s ceasefire announcement was met with criticism from Russian military bloggers, with some even calling the proposal “madness.”
The pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Rybar called Putin’s suggestion “a beautiful political gesture” that “nobody cares about” and said that Russians want to rapidly end the war “with at least some logical conclusion.” Another military blog, Военный Осведомитель (“Military Informant”), called the decision “madness,” adding that Ukraine would not accept the offer.
Boris Rozhin, a pro-war military blogger, accused Russian officials of not learning any lessons from eight years of Minsk agreements “that nobody was fulfilling.” Rozhin added, “The decision is obviously unlikely to be very popular, even despite the efforts of official propaganda on this matter.” The post was amplified by multiple pro-war Telegram channels.
Igor Girkin, a former Russian Colonel turned ultranationalist, sarcastically stated on his Telegram channel that Putin took “a bold and decisive step towards defeat and surrender.” He added, “The Hague applauds and begins to prepare the camera.”
Criticism from pro-war military bloggers has increased in recent months in both scale and boldness. Military bloggers slammed the Kremlin for military failures, incompetence, and for rejoining the Ukraine grain deal.
—Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Tbilisi, Georgia